WASHINGTON – The 113th Congress and Western New York’s newest congressman took office Thursday poised for confrontations that could make the nation’s encounter with the “fiscal cliff” look like a stumble over a sidewalk crack.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, faced with a deeply divided Republican caucus, narrowly won re-election from lawmakers who are primed for a fight over the federal debt ceiling at the end of February, as well as near-simultaneous battles over 10-year spending cuts and funding for programs through fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30.
Republicans are expected to demand deep budget cuts from President Obama and congressional Democrats in return for an extension of the debt ceiling.
And the newly sworn-in congressman from New York’s 27th District, former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, seemed eager to join the battle, saying Congress needs to act to tame trillion-dollar federal deficits that threaten future generations with an overload of debt.
“About the only leverage the Republicans have is the debt limit,” Collins said. “If the only leverage we have is the debt limit, I’ll be there saying I’m fighting for my children, your children, our grandchildren. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions, not unlike what I did as county executive. And everyone’s going to have to pay a price for this.”
Obama has said, though, that he will not negotiate on the issue of raising the debt ceiling, and congressional Democrats echo that sentiment.
“It’s reckless and irresponsible” for Republicans to use the debt ceiling issue to extract spending cuts, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “It does permanent damage to the economy and the financial markets.”
The full-fledged debate over the debt ceiling is more than a month away, so in a sense, Thursday’s opening of the new Congress served more as a reflection on the recent fiscal cliff battle than a precursor for the fight yet to come.
Boehner won a second term as speaker with 220 Republican votes. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., received 192 votes.
Nine conservatives angry with Boehner’s stewardship of the fiscal cliff issue voted for other GOP candidates such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who got three votes, and former Rep. Allen West of Florida. Three Republicans abstained.
Presiding over an unruly caucus that was deeply split over a fiscal cliff deal that passed thanks to a majority of Democratic votes, a teary-eyed Boehner used his victory speech, it seemed, to admonish his critics.
“If you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place,” he said. “The door is behind you.”
But the rebels were undeterred.
“We need a conservative speaker,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., part of a loosely organized and failed attempt to deny Boehner the speakership on the first ballot, said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “We need a red-state speaker.”
Both Collins and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, supported Boehner.
“I was proud to vote for John,” Collins said. “We need to get our financial house in order, and as speaker of the House, I’m confident he’s going to help us in that conversation and the debate.”
Boehner and Collins disagreed, though, on the fiscal cliff legislation that passed the House on New Year’s night. While Boehner reluctantly supported it, Collins said he would have voted against it had he been in the House at the time.
In his first detailed comments on policy issues since defeating Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Hamburg, in November, Collins said he opposed the fiscal cliff deal because it didn’t include any spending cuts. “It’s adding to the nation’s debt,” the Clarence Republican said of the deal. “We have to be working on the reverse of that.”
That seems to be what Boehner intends to do, judging from his comments on the House floor.
“Our government has built up too much debt. Our economy is not producing enough jobs. These are not separate problems,” Boehner said. “The American Dream is in peril so long as its namesake is weighed down by this anchor of debt. Break its hold, and we begin to set our economy free.”
The close vote for the speakership, followed by Boehner’s emotional acceptance speech, capped a day of drama on Capitol Hill.
As the Senate reconvened, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who suffered a stroke almost a year ago, made a dramatic return, walking haltingly up the steps of the Capitol as his colleagues looked on and cheered.
Kirk returned to a Congress that’s slightly more Democratic than the one that left office Thursday as one of the least productive and least popular in the nation’s history.
The freshman class of 12 senators includes eight Democrats and an independent, Angus King of Maine, who will caucus with Democrats, as well as three Republicans.
Prominent new faces in the Senate include Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who gained fame as a critic of big banks, and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the nation’s first openly gay senator.
Democrats will have a 55-45 edge in the new Senate, while Republicans hold a 233-200 advantage in the new House, which has two vacancies.
Collins was one of six Republicans who ousted incumbent Democrats, doing so in a conservative suburban-and-rural district that only became more Republican-leaning through reapportionment.
In an interview Thursday shortly before taking office, Collins vowed to keep the interests of his district first and foremost on his list of priorities.
“My focus is going to be to be a very good constituent service congressman, representing the 27th Congressional District – certainly to work on the economic issues of the industries in our district,” he said, “but also to have the best district constituent service.”
Collins will be serving on the Agriculture and Small Business committees. His work on those committees, he said, will be perfectly tailored to the district’s needs.
“This district is so agricultural,” Collins said. “I’m coming in and serving on a committee that’s very important to the 27th District, at a very important time, because we need a farm bill.”
The nation is operating under a temporary extension of a five-year farm bill that expired last year, and Collins vowed to try to take care of his district’s dairy farmers and produce growers in the legislation the committee will be drawing up this year.
Meanwhile, he said his experience as a small-businessman himself will lend itself to service on the Small Business panel.
The path laid out by Collins is a very different one from that of his predecessors in a district that produced Republican leaders such as Jack Kemp, Bill Paxon and Tom Reynolds and then a Democratic shooting star in Hochul.
But Collins said there’s a reason why he has more modest expectations than he would have if he had won his 1998 run for Congress against then-Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda.
“I’m 62 years old,” Collins said. “It’s different than if I had gone in when I was 48. A 62-year-old member of Congress, versus a 48-year-old member of Congress, are in two different places in their life.”
He also acknowledged that serving as a back-bench, first-term congressman is far different from serving as county executive, an office where Collins earned a reputation as a brutally effective manager.
“I’m not the guy that’s signing the checks,” he said. “I’m not the president hiring Cabinet officials to run various departments. It’s a very different job than being the CEO. … I’m coming into this to give insight and be part of the debate.”
And that’s just what the new Congress needs, said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
“Any time you have new members arriving, you have that expectation of bringing fresh ideas and kind of a vitality that is needed,” Manchin told the Associated Press. “We hope that they’re coming eager to work hard and make some difficult decisions and put the country first and not be bogged down ideologically.”